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2014 Positional Breakdown: Linebackers

Posted Jan 14, 2014

New faces took over in the middle of Miami’s defense.

All eyes were on the heart of the Miami Dolphins defense this past season because that was the unit that went through the most comprehensive makeover. Newcomers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler replaced veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett in the starting lineup, with Koa Misi the only holdover on the outside.

Ellerbe arrived with impressive credentials, having led the Baltimore Ravens in tackles in their win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, and Wheeler was coming off of a career year in Oakland with the Raiders. Add in fourth-round draft pick Jelani Jenkins out of the University of Florida, who earned more playing time by the end of the season, and solid backups Jason Trusnik, Austin Spitler and Jonathan Freeny, and Miami enjoyed depth at that critical position.

Three of the Dolphins’ top tacklers on the season were linebackers and six of them finished in double digits or higher in that category. The linebacker corps also produced two interceptions and 3.5 sacks and provided stability in the middle against the run and the pass.

BREAKING DOWN DOLPHINS LINEBACKERS

• Dannell Ellerbe (6-1, 245) — Nobody came into training camp on the defensive side of the ball with more fanfare than Ellerbe and his rich multi-year contract to go along with his Super Bowl ring, but for the most part he lived up to the expectations. The former Georgia Bulldog was among the league leaders in tackles before suffering an injury against his former team and missing a game, but he still finished with 101 tackles (70 solo), one sack and two interceptions.

• Philip Wheeler (6-2, 240) — Wheeler led the Dolphins in total tackles with 118 (his 83 solo tackles were just one behind team leader Reshad Jones) and he also had a half a sack. The former Georgia Tech star collected that half a sack in Week 2 against the Indianapolis Colts on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on what was the last play of the game, as he and Randy Stacks collapsed the pocket on fourth down to end the game and give the Dolphins a 24-20 victory.

• Koa Misi (6-3, 254) — Coming off of his best season in 2012, Misi parlayed that success and the trust of his coaching staff and front office into a well deserved contract extension. The second-round pick out of Utah back in 2010 was stellar in pass coverage and as a sure tackler all over the field, finishing with 54 tackles (34 solo) two sacks and three passes defensed despite missing one game due to injury.

• Jason Trusnik (6-4, 252) — Trusnik was one of the most important special teams players for the Dolphins and was the first one up when Ellerbe couldn’t play, taking over his starting spot against the Buffalo Bills on October 20th and notching seven solo tackles while calling the defense. He wound up making two starts on the season, filling in for Misi at Tampa Bay, and has played in 48 consecutive games.

• Jelani Jenkins (6-0, 243) — Other than kicker Caleb Sturgis, Jenkins had the biggest impact of the three rookies representing the Florida Gators on special teams and on defense. The soft-spoken but athletic player finished the season with 17 tackles (15 solo) and found himself on the field with Ellerbe and Misi during the most critical time of the game against the New England Patriots on December 15th, helping Miami hold on for a 24-20 win.

• Austin Spitler (6-2, 250) — This was Spitler’s fourth season in the league, but the first one that saw him leave the Dolphins momentarily when he was waived a week before the season opener at Cleveland before rejoining the team three weeks later. The Ohio State grad made eight solo tackles in the last 12 games for Miami and played a vital role on special teams while also filling in when injuries struck Ellerbe, Wheeler and Misi.

• Jonathan Freeny (6-2, 250) — Freeny held off all challengers in training camp to retain his spot on the 53-man roster and was an integral part of Miami’s special teams, while also giving defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle enough reasons to trust him on defense when called upon. An undrafted free agent out of Rutgers in 2011, he contributed 13 tackles (10 solo) in 16 games and established himself as someone to keep an eye on next season.

Josh Kaddu was the only other linebacker to make an appearance on Miami’s active roster during the season, as he was activated once at New Orleans on September 30th. He finished the season on the practice squad and was originally a fifth-round draft pick out of Oregon in the 2012 NFL Draft.
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